Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tales as Old as Time

I just finished Mercedes Lackey's The Sleeping Beauty (I know, I know, it wasn't on the summer reading list, but there was a lot of flexibility in that list and I have been pretty steadily working at it as I have finished the Dresden Files). It was good, but about the same as the other books in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which is not up to the standard of the Valdemar universe or even her Elemental Masters series (I highly recommend both).

The basis of the Five Hundred Kingdoms is that there are all these, well, kingdoms that are guided by this omnipresent and unintelligent force, the Tradition, that seeks out people whose lives closely resemble a fairy tale, saga, or myth and force events to replay that same story over and over again.  So if you have a deceased father, a stepmother, and two stepsisters who are ugly in some way, you turn into Cinderella (the basis of The Fairy Godmother, the first book in the series).  However that is not always the case because what is the Prince Cinderella is supposed to fall in love with is two years old, or eighty-five years old? Then there is all this Traditional magic that builds up around the almost-Cinderella that could be used for good or evil.  This is where the Fairy Godmother comes in, an individual who guides (read 'manipulates') the Tradition to a non-evil ending.  Basically, the book is full of allusions to tales - Grimm's, Anderson, and the Greek and Norse myths.  It's a creative way to deal with the fact that "there is no such thing as a wholly original work of literature," (Foster 29).

If you didn't follow the last link, the book I am referring to is Thomas Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is actually a really good and fairly easy read about how to pick apart some of the inner workings of books.  Anyhoo, Chapter 5: Now, Where Have I Seen That Before? examines the intertextuality of literature, whether it be from direct references, allusions, or reworking stories.  Though I don't completely agree with his "big secret" that "there's only one story" (Foster 32), because that seems a little simplistic and too broad, the the idea that stories build upon one another and are constantly referring to each other is completely wrapped up in fairy and folk tales.  I mean think about it, how many versions of Cinderella have you seen or read? I estimate at least 20, but that seems low because, in essence, most chick-flicks play on that theme.  There is just this fascination with happily-ever-after that never seems to leave us from our first introduction through the safety of the Disney-ified versions of the stories to the humorous modern interpretations to the dark and dangerous "originals."

Here are some of my favorite re-tellings, fairy tales and other wise:

  • Bill Willingham's Fables series -- They're graphic novels that put all of your favorite characters in a modern setting, complete with inter-dimensional travel, epic battles, and sex.  Great storytelling and concept. Rated PG-13 for language, images, and sexuality. See my earlier rave post on this very subject.
  • Mercedes Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series -- Again, not up to her usual standard, but these romances have a great concept and they are entertaining.  I also like the fact that she features different traditions of tales in each of the books.  Start with The Fairy Godmother.  Rated PG to PG-13, depending on the book for mild sexuality.
  • Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series -- This universe is set in Victorian era Britain for the most part and combines the basic plot of fairy tales with elemental magicians.  They are less simplistic and a little darker than 500 Kingdoms; my favorites are Pheonix and Ashes and The Serpent's Shadow.  Rated PG-13 for mild sexuality, violence, and mature themes.
  • Anything by Robin McKinley --  She writes mostly for young adults and has a feminist twist (rated PG). My favorite is Beauty.  The only adult story I've read of hers is Deerskin and it was okay.  Definitely check out her original fiction as well, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword. 
  • Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and Once Upon a More Enlightened Time by James Finn Garner -- Humorous, modern re-tellings of all your favorites.  It's been awhile since I read them, but I think I would rate them PG-13 for some mature material.
  • D.J. MacHale's Pendragon Series -- It's an older children to young adult series of a modern-day hero of the Arthurian legend.  Great story-telling.  Rated PG for some heavy action. I haven't finished the series, so shh! Don't tell me what happens.
Some other popular fairy tale re-fashioners include Gail Carson Levine of Ella Enchanted fame (G), Gregory Maguire of Wicked fame (definitely R) and Angela Carter (R), but really almost all writers pull on these various traditions and you can find fairy tales tailored to almost any philosophy from feminism to Marxism to Nazism (I kid you not, the Nazi party re-wrote Grimms tales to better reflect Arians and put down Jews). 

The possibilities are endless and I love seeing what has bee added to the literary tradition. I can't wait to read more fairy tales and add a little magic to my life.

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